GIMPO, South Korea — As troops stood guard and a choir sang carols Tuesday, South Koreans lit a massive steel Christmas tree that overlooks the world's most heavily armed border and is within sight of atheist North Korea.
The lighting of the tree after a seven-year hiatus marked a pointed return to a tradition condemned in Pyongyang as propaganda. The provocative ceremony — which needed government permission — was also a sign that President Lee Myung-bak's administration is serious about countering the North's aggression with measures of its own in the wake of an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans last month.
While the North has made some conciliatory gestures in recent days — indicating to a visiting U.S. governor that it might allow international inspections of its nuclear programs — Seoul appears unmoved.
Pyongyang has used a combination of aggression and reconciliation before to extract concessions from the international community, and the resurrection of the tree lighting at Aegibong is a signal that the South is ready to play hardball until it sees real change from the North.
Earlier, a South Korean destroyer prowled the sea and fighter jets tore across the skies in preparation for possible North Korean attacks a day after Seoul held a round of artillery drills from a front-line island.
After warning of deadly retaliation, North Korea said it would not deign to fight back, and indicated to visiting New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that it was prepared to consider ways to work with the South on restoring security along the tense border.
Richardson praised Pyongyang on Tuesday for refraining from retaliation and said his visit to the North provided an opening for a resumption of negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea pulled out of six-nation talks to provide Pyongyang with aid in exchange for disarmament in April 2009, but since has said it is willing to resume them.
The White House, however, rejected the idea, saying Pyongyang needed to change its "belligerent" behavior first and was not "even remotely ready" for negotiations.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday there were no plans to debrief Richardson after his trip. What Washington wants from the North, he said, is conciliatory deeds, not words.
"Six-party talks will be restarted again when the North Koreans display a willingness to change behavior. We're not going to get a table in a room and have six-party talks just for the feel-good notion of having six-party talks," he said.